Don Smally calibrated cannons during WWII to make them more accurate

Don and Jan Smally are pictured in their Army uniforms shortly after they got married in the World War II era.  Photo provided

Don and Jan Smally of Sarasota, Fla. are pictured in their Army uniforms shortly after they got married during World War II. Photo provided

Don Smally was a sergeant in the 283rd Ordinance and Ballistic Technical Service Detachment, fighting in Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army in Europe during World War II.

“In short, we were combat ballistic experts trying to make our artillery fire more accurately under combat conditions,” the 86-year-old Sarasota man explained. “At first, the artillery people thought we were nuts. When we came back the second time, they loved us because we had made their guns much more accurate.”

During the First World War, American artillery pieces would fire 1,000 rounds, then discard the barrels and replace them with new ones. Artillery experts during WWII wanted to improve the wear and tear and accuracy of their heavy artillery, so they established a special unit to solve the problem.

Smally started the war as an aviation mechanic working on C-47 transports for the Air Force. When it was discovered he had a year of engineering school under his belt, he was placed in Army Ordinance.

“I ended up in a special class of 10 officers and 10 enlisted men in the Army’s special training program to become ballistic electronic technicians. We were working on what was considered high-tech equipment in those days comprised of tubes and all kinds of resistors,” he said. “Because of the cold weather, we had an awful time with our equipment. The Army gave us an electrical cable to run our equipment that broke in the cold. We scrounged a special Signal Corps cable that was impervious to weather that did the job.”

Smally explained that the difference between the American Army and the German Army was that GIs knew how to improvise — the Germans didn’t.

“When a German soldier’s Jeep broke down, he waited for a mechanic. If the same thing happened to a couple of American GIs, they jumped out, opened the hood and went to work,” he said. “We won the war not because we had superior equipment to the Germans, but because we had more of it.”

Smally and his unit were assigned to Patton’s army shortly after it went into France and began fighting its way toward Germany.

“We were calibrating Patton’s 155 mm guns when he broke through the German lines during the Battle of the Bulge. We stayed with Patton all the way ’til the end of the war,” he said.

Asked about Patton, Smally told this story: “I saw Patton twice, and both times he was giving somebody hell. I remember one time we were in a convoy that got bogged down at a crossroad somewhere in Europe. Along came a Jeep and in it was an officer with a shiny helmet — it had to be Patton. A few minutes later, he was standing in the crossroad directing traffic with his revolvers on his hip.”

The old soldier continued, “One day I bumped into a quartermaster shower unit near Nuremberg, Germany. We hadn’t had showers in a long time, so several of us took a Jeep and drove over to the showers. They were wonderful — hot water and everything.

“On the way back to our outfit, our Jeep got strafed by the last German plane in the air. We had to dive out of our Jeep and into mud holes along the side of the road to evade the enemy plane,” he said with a chuckle.

After V-E (Victory in Europe) Day, Smally got word his mother was ill. He received an emergency furlough to go home in early August 1945. He flew back to New York City in the lap of luxury aboard a C-54 four-engine transport, operated by the Diplomatic Corps.

When he reached the United States he called his wife, Jan, who had joined the WAC (Women’s Army Corps) after graduating from college and was serving as a sergeant with the Corps of Engineers.

“I found a pay phone and talked to Jan for a while, and then the operator broke in and told me to deposit some more money in the slot to continue,” he said. “I told the operator I had no more coins and added I just got back from the war and hadn’t talked to my wife in more than a year.”

“‘In that case, go ahead and talk all you want,’ she replied.”

Don Smally looks at a tiny notebook in which he kept track of all the places he travelled and what he saw while serving in Europe during World War II. Sun photo by Don Moore

Don Smally looks at a tiny notebook in which he kept track of all the places he travelled and what he saw while serving in Europe during World War II. Sun photo by Don Moore

After graduating from the University of Cincinnati’s engineering school in 1949, Smally and his wife moved to Sarasota.

Hundreds of building projects

For more than three decades, Don Smally and his firm, Smally, Wellford & Nalven, worked on hundreds of building projects in the Sarasota-Venice area beginning in 1950. By the time he retired in the mid-1980s, he had been involved with engineering plans for more than 2,500 subdivisions, water and sewer systems, roads and bulkheads in the area.

Some of the job included engineering work on the Sarasota County water and sewer system, Palmer Ranch subdivision, engineering the water and sewer systems for Venice, Venice Gardens, Jacaranda subdivision in Venice, the Meadows in Sarasota, Sarasota’s Island Park, and Longboat Key’s water and sewer system.


This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, April 23, 2009 and is republished with permission.

All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.

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